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Wimbledon: ‘Ace’, ‘Deuce’, ‘Nutmeg’… The sporting lingo that’s lighting up our summer

August 12, 2019

 There’s all that tradition, too, whether it be the “white only” rule for players’ outfits, the strawberries and cream kiosks, the queues at the gates – and the unique language of the game  Deuce (pronounced juice)? Where on earth did that come from? As a child, watching tennis matches from SW19 on the box, I always wondered why, when the umpire shouted out the word, the players didn’t seem to stop for a drink  If it was me, I thought, I’d be taking any opportunity to swig some of that Robinson’s Barley Water they always seemed to have on standby; the posher stuff that my mother always refused to buy  Only years later when I played the game myself did I learn that what deuce actually referred to was that the score was tied on 40-40 in a game  The scoring system in tennis, which runs from 15 to 30 and then jumps to 40, is itself notoriously puzzling and its origins still remain frustratingly obscure    The genesis of “deuce” is more certain – it actually derives from the French “à deux le jeu,” which not only indicates that the scores are equal but that a player needs to be two points ahead to win the game  Interestingly however, in France, where tennis is believed to have been born, the word égalité, meaning equality, is actually preferred to deuce  However it managed to find its way into our sporting lexicon, there is something wonderfully eccentric about the use of the word deuce which adds, rather than detracts, from the spectacle  The same goes for other poetic terms used in the sport, many of which have intriguing stories behind them Take the use of “love”to mean a score of nil. One story goes that it’s linked to the French word for an egg, “oeuf”, because that’s what “0” looks like The idea is that this became corrupted in English into “love”. It’s a neat notion only let down by the fact that French tennis players themselves simply say “zéro” Another theory is that the use of the word derives from the Dutch “lof” meaning honour or, more simply, that when someone scored nothing they were simply playing for the “love of the game”  Then there’s the word “let”, usu-ally used when a point is replayed after the ball strikes the net This comes from an Old English word, “lettan”, meaning to obstruct or hinder. “Racquet” can be traced back centuries to an Arabic word “rahat”, meaning “palm of the hand” Hands were indeed used in early versions of tennis to hit the ball. The expression Grand Slam has its origins in the card game bridge for a certain number of tricks, and was first used to refer to the top tennis tournaments in the 1930s, while the term “ace” for an unreturnable serve was also coined in the early 20th century by American sportswriterc  OF course tennis isn’t the only sport peppered with a wealth of curious language which we have taken to our hearts  The Fifa Women’s World Cup is reaching its climax this week, with England in the semi-finals, and by August the new domestic soccer season starts Top footballers will be hoping to “nutmeg” the opposition – the trick of knocking the ball through an unwitting player’s legs, then swiftly collecting it from the other side  The most plausible theory about how it came into the game is that it dates back to Victorian times when nutmeg was a very valuable commodity A sharp practice saw unscrupulous traders mix ordinary bits of wood with batches of the spice to make a fast buck and so nutmeg became associated with hoodwinking  Footballers also dream of scoring three goals in a match or a “hat-trick”. But this term has been borrowed from cricket, a summer sport bursting with lyrical lingo as we are currently witnessing during the World Cup  It turns out that the phrase was first used in 1858 at the Hyde Park ground in Sheffield after bowler HH Stephenson, playing for an All-England XI against a local side, took three wickets with successive deliveries  A collection was taken to reward him for his unusual and spectacular feat and put towards a hat as a gift  The fielding position “silly point” is so called because it’s so close to the batsman and the risk of being hit by the ball is high  A “maiden” – an over in which no runs are scored – began as a ribald reference to a virginal woman  Then there is the fiendish delivery called a “googly” where an off-break ball is bowled in such a way as to look like a leg-break  It was invented by English cricketer Bernard Bosanquet in the 1890s who was inspired to create it after playing a game called Twisti-Twosti where you bounced a tennis ball on a table in such a way that your opponent on the other side couldn’t catch it  When he eventually introduced the deceptive delivery into cricket at a match it made the batsman’s eyes “goggle”, hence the moniker we know today    Much like “love” in tennis, a “duck” for scoring zero in cricket refers to the look of the bird’s egg  The phrase dates to the 1860s when a spectator started quacking at an unfortunate player who’d failed to score  A tally of 111 in cricket is often referred to as a Nelson. It’s lodged in the myth that the admiral had only one eye, one arm and one leg (he actually had two of the latter)  The score is considered unlucky as it looks a bit like stumps without their bails A more recent addition to the cricket glossary is “sledging” referring to the verbal abuse given to players by the opposite side  With the Ashes set to begin in August we’re bound to hear plenty of it, so it’s perhaps appropriate that it began Down Under in the 1970s with an Aussie player who supposedly reacted to an incident “like a sledgehammer”  It was linked to rumours around his love life too. On one occasion the fielding team had started singing When a Man Loves a Woman by the singer Percy Sledge to tease him when he came into bat     Taunting the opposition has been known as sledging ever since. Later this month, the world’s best golfers will assemble to take part in the British Open at Royal Portrush  There will be lots of talk of “birdies”, a score of one under par, which comes from 19thcentury American slang for something good  “Bogeys”, for a score of one over par will also feature and originates from the 1890s when a golfer with a bad round blamed the bogeyman, a mythical creature related to bogle, the old Scottish word for a ghost  Of course, when it comes to our British sports stars there is likely to be lots of talk of the “underdog”  This dates back to 19th-century dog fights and refers to the losing mutt. It’s a timely reminder that while history has left us with some truly inspiring sporting language, some traditions are best forgotten! 

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